A National Day of Action


We’re in the Carlton Gardens and we’re told that marchers are still leaving Federation Square. This is unbelievable, as the Gardens are already filled with people and Fed Square is a good half-hour away.

Earlier, Jon Faine had reported on ABC radio that the numbers at the Square (six to seven thousand at 8:30am) surely meant that the union-organised protest was a ‘fizzer’. An employer was quick to ring in to say he was on his way to join the rally because he was concerned about the rights of his employees.

Melbourne rally

At 11:00am, the banners and people of all ages keep on coming up the La Trobe Street hill. Paul Kelly’s first song begins with the words ‘I’m so afraid for my country.’ A young man walks past with ‘Rage Against the Machine’ on his t-shirt. A woman pushing a pram has a small pink notice pinned to her clothes: ‘$5.30 an hour.’

Speakers from various unions are talking about Howard’s ‘ideological fight to take away workers’ rights.’ Linda Boyd from the New Zealand National Union of Public Employees warns that prevention is the only cure to maintaining these rights. The organisers claim that 150,000 are at the rally and they are still counting. At midday, The Age is quoting 175,000 and the caption on the photo is ‘Protesters engulf Melbourne CBD’.

The ABC is quoting Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) secretary Martin Kingham: ‘Looks like 200,000 to me – the biggest industrial rally that I’ve ever seen in Melbourne.’ The Victorian branch secretary of the Australian Services Union, Darrell Cochrane, reckons, ‘If this doesn’t send a message to the Howard Government, I don’t know what will.’

At the same time, Telstra announces the axing of 12,000 jobs.

Melbourne rally

Richard Frankland filmmaker, musician and candidate in the last Federal election says he’s mixing with radicals and therefore, ‘I’m in good company. I’ll see you in the cells come the sedition laws.’ He tells the crowd that Howard’s time of reckoning will come and, ‘you are his reckoning.’ Frankland then performs a song with the chorus ‘You can’t be wrong if you’re right.’ At 11.30 the Electrical Trade Union banners march into the Gardens.

Another performer is on the stage. This time the words are: ‘Australian people, you vote for me, I’ll make your life a misery.’ Everyone starts singing along. Later on the song tells how, ‘I’ll make it difficult for you to go to university, because if you become too clever, you won’t vote for me.’ Listening to these lyrics are council workers, teachers, crisis service workers, nurses, people in suits, men in overalls, families in short, the community.

Yarra Trams announces a disruption of their services due to a ‘Community Protest’.

There’s been much talk lately, in New Matilda and elsewhere, about reviving communities. Howard, with a little help from his friends, seems to have taken the lead. In the West Australian newspaper, it was reported that building workers who attended today’s national day of action could face fines of up to $22,000 each. Apparently, the Australian Building and Construction Commission’s John Lloyd told the paper, ‘Complaints made about [the]November 15 action will be investigated. Prosecution action would be taken where it was judged to be warranted.’

A women in senior management in the Victorian public service told us that she decided to come to the rally when told that the, ‘Feds had instructed that no one could take recreational leave to attend.’ Can an employer dictate what you do when you are on leave? Is this a sign of things to come if this IR legislation goes through?

Melbourne rally

But the union movement can’t just rely on blundering, power-tripping employers to enrage people. Many thousands of Victorians marched against Jeff Kennett’s proposed IR changes and then nothing happened. Well, a lot of lawyers made a fortune taking Kennett’s Government to court, on behalf of the unions, but there were no more mass rallies.

We were told that if we moved to a federal system, our working conditions would be better protected. Those who suggested that the federal system would be under attack by Howard (if and when he claimed government) and therefore direct action would be more effective, were derided. Meanwhile, the court cases rolled on, union members became disaffected and membership levels dropped.

A brochure handed out at the rally today asks people to stay involved in the campaign by lobbying politicians, spreading the word and donating to the union TV advertising campaign.

Walking back to work after the protest, I give way to three women and a pram to hear one of them say: ‘They’re going to determine your choices and they’re going to take away your rights.’ So the word is spreading. But we also need effective opposition to this legislation in parliament. Unfortunately, Beazley’s recorded speech to the protesters was less than stirring.

As I’m sure I heard Paul Kelly sing in between the chorus of ‘Be careful what you prayed for’ ‘Be careful who you voted for.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.